One winter’s day in 1904, Arthur Conan Doyle steered his Wolseley Motoring Machine too quickly into the drive of his Surrey country home. The car clipped a gatepost and ran up a high bank before overturning completely. Doyle’s passenger was thrown clear but the author was pinioned by the heavy vehicle. “The steering wheel projected slightly from the rest,” he wrote later, “and broke the impact and undoubtedly saved my life, but it gave way under the strain, and the weight of the car settled across my spine just below the neck, pinning my face down onto the gravel, and pressing with such terrible force as to make it impossible to utter a sound…”
The creator of Sherlock Holmes remained under the car until a crowd gathered and was able to lift the vehicle from him. “I should say think there are few who can say that they have held up a ton weight and lived unparalysed to talk about it,” he recalled. “It is an acrobatic feat which I have no desire to repeat.” In correspondence, Doyle subsequently attributed his narrow escape to a course of muscular development he had undertaken with Eugen Sandow, the world-famous strongman and music-hall performer who provided personal fitness coaching from his Institute of Physical Culture at 33A, St James’s Street, in the heart of London’s fashionable Clubland.1 The training had left Doyle in superb physical condition, and provided Sandow with what today we call “celebrity endorsement” for the near-miraculous efficacy of his method.
Readers who come across this anecdote in a biography of Doyle may be forgiven for regarding Eugen Sandow (pronounced “You-jean Sand-ow to rhyme with “how” or “now”) as a mere footnote in late Victorian and Edwardian cultural history. Sandow (1867-1925) is now almost totally forgotten by the broader public by whom he was once adored. The man who rose from humble origins in Prussia to become internationally famous as the literal embodiment of masculine perfection, a century ago the possessor of the most famous male body in the world, lay for more than eighty years in an unmarked grave in Putney Vale cemetery. Only recently has his great-grandson erected a memorial, ending more than three quarters of a century of ignominious anonymity. He is remembered today chiefly by body building enthusiasts for whom a statuette of Sandow is the coveted first prize in the International Federations of Body Builders Mr. Olympia competition. (Arnold Schwarzenegger won one of these figurines in 1980).2 Not surprisingly for so good-looking a man, who posed near-naked for photographs long before pornography entered the mainstream, Sandow has also become an icon of homosexual culture: the various Sandow artefacts (such as bill-posters, dumb-bells, cigar-boxes and indeed semi-nude photographs) that regularly come up for sale on eBay tend to be flagged as “gay int.,” i.e. of special interest to the gay community. Even in his lifetime, he was a pin-up for a circle of covertly homosexual intellectuals such as the author and critic Edmund Gosse and J. Addington Symonds, the consumptive art historian who moved from Victorian England to Switzerland in search of health and athletic young boys. In 1889, barely weeks after the strongman made his music-hall debut, Gosse sent pictures of Sandow to Symonds at his home in Davos as a Christmas present, and Symonds wrote a drooling thank you note by return. “They are very interesting,” he gushed. “The full length studies quite confirm my anticipations with regard to his wrists and ankles & feet. The profile and half-trunk is a splendid study. I am very much obliged to you for getting them to me.”3
- See Hesketh Pearson, Arthur Conan Doyle: His Life and Art (London: Methuen, 1943), p.149. [↩]
- Schwarzenegger won this competition seven times: each year from 1970 to 1975, and again in 1980. The Sandow statuette was awarded for the first time in 1977. [↩]
- Letters of John Addington Symonds, Vol 3., ed. Herbert M Schueller and Robert L Peters, letter from Symonds to Gosse, December 28, 1889. [↩]